Ornamental Turning (OT) is the centuries-old practice of decorating
lathe- turned objects with complex patterns. Ornamental lathes have been around since about 1600 AD, and they represent the pinnacle of lathe design and engineering. Fine exotic woods, such as African Blackwood are utilized for the bodies of many ornamental turnings. To produce the repetitive patterns typical of OT requires sophisticated lathes and special accessories based on centuries-old technology.
In general wood turning, a wood block is fixed between two centers and it spins rapidly while the operator uses hand held tools to make manual cuts by eye. OT lathes vary vastly in form and the operators utilize a variety of specialized attachments and cutting tools that create complex textures in elliptical, eccentric, rectilinear, swash, geometric, and “rose” patterns. A “plain” turned object is fixed in place on the OT lathe and is “indexed” or turned very slowly while a decorative metal “fly-cutter” makes successive cuts until it reaches the depth the operator has pre-set. OT objects are typically cut with a series of different cutters on the same object. For instance, cutter A may is used on one section, then the object is reoriented to cutter B, then cutter C, to achieve the striking variety of textures on a single object. Complex lathes emerged around the 15th century as the nobility of Europe began to commission and collect the beautiful wood and ivory turnings made on them. Over the centuries as princes became interested in OT, court society turned at the lathe: Rose lathes stood in residences from Stockholm to Florence and Paris to Moscow with rulers and princes dabbling in OT. The programmed machines and cutters were a source of great fascination, perhaps because they served as perfect symbols of hierarchical order and the absolute monarchy.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, kings and princes employed the best turners and engineers to produce ever more complex machines and artifacts. Each machine was individually made at considerable time and expense, and functioned for recreation and education. With the advent of automated industrial production in the mid-19th century, the royal enthusiasm for the OT machine ended. By the late 19th century, the high cost of OT equipment restricted its use to wealthy science amateurs - often professors and clergy.
In 1948, the Society of Ornamental Turners was formed in England which fostered a rebirth of interest in OT tools and techniques. In 1976, Fine Woodworking magazine in the US published an article on Frank Knox that re-introduced OT to the woodworking community. This article, combined with two OT books published in the mid-1980s, resulted in a new surge of interest. By late century, turners even started building computer-controlled OT lathes, such as the HAWK and modern Ornamental Lathes like the Lawler OT Lathe.
Ornamental turning is kept alive by a small group of masters and enthusiasts who carry on the knowledge of the machines and execute the lovely end products. Only a handful of these mechanical wonders exist, and few retain their original parts and accessories because many were
altered during the world wars in response to metal and machinery drives.
While some worn-out machines have been scrapped, others may exist in
the back corners of attics or workshops – dusty, unrecognized, and awaiting discovery. Museums maintain some of the best machines, notably the British Science Museum in South Kensington, London, and the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris France.
Today Rose Engine lathes are again being manufactured by a few individuals. Most notably are Fred Armbruster, Kelly Erbschloe, David Lindow along with the MADE Lathe crew. With the help of today’s technology all of these machines are truly magnificent works of art.
OT artists network through organizations dedicated to the preservation of this grand art and craft, such as the Ornamental Turners International in the US, and England’s Society of Ornamental Turners. The internet has served as a tool in renewed growth over the last 10 years. Websites facilitate locating and purchasing OT machines and apparatus, and enthusiasts and practitioners share photos of their process, tools, machines and results on personal websites. Today there is a bright future for the regrowth of ornamental & rose engine (guilloche) turning.